From a Chinese perspective, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the United States was a disappointment , at least on the media front. Despite long planning by both countries’ officials, the trip was overshadowed by Pope Francis’s visit, Russia’s unexpected military intervention in the Syrian crisis, and the surprise resignation of U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner. In the end, American media overlooked many of the positive results of the visit, including the U.S.-Chinese renewed dialogue on climate change, an agreement on cybersecurity, and Xi’s reassuring speech to the U.S. business community on China’s economic reforms.
Despite the disappointment, all eyes are now focused on China’s current state visit: on October 20, Xi arrived in London at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth. His visit included the usual symbolic perks—a stay at Buckingham Palace, a ride in a royal carriage, and an address to the British Parliament—but his stay has also featured important trade and economic announcements, and has emphasized a new and unexpected honeymoon between two former enemies.
For the past two years, the United Kingdom has been cozying up to China in a way that has surprised even the Chinese. After all, it has been only 18 years since the British colony of Hong Kong was returned to China, following a century and half of Chinese humiliation. The long list of humiliations include the two Opium Wars, the ransacking of the old Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860, and the United Kingdom’s “borrowing” of Chinese territories (which became foreign concessions), not to mention the cession and colonization of Hong Kong—a territory where certain public places were once forbidden to ethnic Chinese residents.
It is now fair to say that the United Kingdom is gradually becoming China’s best Western friend.
The relationship began to change in December 2013, when British Prime Minister David Cameron, accompanied by six of his ministers, led an impressive 120-member strong British business delegation to China which included the CEOS of Rolls-Royce, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Barclays, HSBC, GlaxoSmithKline, and Virgin, among other heavyweights. Calling for more Chinese investors in his country, Cameron declared: “I am not embarrassed that China is investing in British nuclear power, or has shares in Heathrow airport, or Thames Water, or Manchester airport. I think it’s a positive sign of economic strength that we are open and welcome to Chinese investment.” Last September, during a visit to China that took him as far as the western Xinjiang autonomous region, British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne even proclaimed the advent of a “golden decade” in the Sino-British relationship.
It is now fair to say that the United Kingdom is gradually becoming China’s best Western friend. A few months ago, London was the first European country to join the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a founding member, paving the way for Australia, France, Germany, Italy, South Korea, and other close U.S. allies to join and threatening Western-led financial institutions such as the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank. The United Kingdom is also helping China train some of its peacekeeping forces (in September, China has committed to stabilize a U.N. peacekeeping standby force of 8,000 troops) and has been sending numerous consultants to China in fields as diverse as finance, infrastructure management, higher education, and civil engineering.
This post is adapted from a piece originally published by Foreign Affairs.